Before settling into his starting blocks here last night, Usain Bolt flexed his new Popeye muscles and mouthed to the television camera: "Number one in the world. I'm ready." The fastest man in history was back on the track for the first time in nine months but for the vast majority of the 100-metre race in the annual Golden Gala gathering, the first stop in Europe on the 2011 IAAF Diamond League tour, the beefed-up Bolt was in danger of having sand kicked in his face.
Sluggish out of the blocks, it took the Jamaican until halfway to get close to his compatriot Asafa Powell and he had to grit his teeth and dig deep to mark his return with a victory. Even then, it was desperately close. Only in the final five metres did Bolt manage to edge in front, ultimately prevailing by 0.02sec in 9.91sec, with Powell second in 9.93sec and Frenchman Christophe Lemaitre third in 10.00sec
He crossed the line shaking his head. This was not the Lightning Bolt of old, the untouchable speed merchant who could afford to take his foot off the pedal, start celebrating 30m from the line and still win the Olympic final in world record time.
Still, it was a winning Bolt. When last seen in action, in Stockholm last August, he was beaten by Tyson Gay. The American will not have been daunted by what he saw last night but, then, some rust was only to have been expected – and Bolt's time, a disappointment by his freakish 9.58sec world record standard, did put him second in the world rankings, 0.01sec behind his fellow-countryman, whom he is scheduled to face over 100m at the Golden Spike meeting at Ostrava in the Czech Republic next Tuesday.
Question marks will remain over the state of the congenital back problem that caused Bolt to curtail his 2010 season after his loss to Gay in the Swedish capital. He has made three visits to Munich this year to consult Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt, the celebrated German sports doctor.
"I think over time it should be OK," Bolt said, after milking the applause of the crowd. "I got through my first race. I was so nervous. I got a bad start and then kind of started to panic. My coach will analyse the race. I was not proud of the race, but I'm getting there. My whole focus this year is getting ready for the World Championships."
In the aftermath, Bolt might have reflected that even Italy's capital city was not built in a day. And there was one title for him yesterday to add to his collection, having been conferred with an honorary law doctorate by the University of the West Indies, making the world's fastest man now officially known as "Ambassador-at-Large, Dr The Honourable Usain St Leo Bolt".
For Phillips Idowu, the Briton who holds the world and European triple jump titles, there was a more satisfying season's opener. The 32-year-old Belgrave Harrier jumped 17.59m, missing Jonathan Edwards' meeting record by 1cm but earning victory and also top spot in the outdoor rankings, ahead of his French rival Teddy Tamgho.
It proved to be the only victory of the night by a member of the British corps in action but in finishing runner-up to South African Louis Van Zyl in the 400m hurdles, Dai Greene claimed the scalps of the reigning Olympic champion, Angelo Taylor of the United States, and Kerron Clement, the American who holds the world title in the event.
Van Zyl prevailed in 47.91sec but second place for Greene in 48.24sec – and a good way ahead of Taylor (third in 48.66sec) and Clement (ninth and last in 50.03sec) – represented a good season's opener for the Swansea Harrier. Not that the Welshman who struck European, Commonwealth and Continental Cup gold last year was satisfied with his performance. "I'm not happy unless I'm winning," Greene said. "I just wasn't smooth enough over the first five or six hurdles."